(Potomac Books, 2007) 384 pages.
Up until this publication,Â anyÂ mention ofÂ “the book”Â in a conversation about baseball wasÂ a reference not to a written piece of work, but rather to a body of tactical advice passed down from one generation of managers to the next. Seemingly, all a tactical ploy neededÂ for inclusion in “the book” was toÂ be successfulÂ at leastÂ once,Â on some field, somewhere in America. It was, in essence, baseball folklore.Â But, as it states in the preface to this publication, “The unwritten book is about to be written.” And itÂ is writtenÂ by usingÂ numerical techniquesÂ to analyse baseball strategy. Tom Tango is the best-known of the authors (through his internet presence as TangoTiger), but all three have worked with Major League teams.
While some of the ideas presented are groundbreaking, this is not a revolutionary publication:Â the idea of using maths toÂ determine the optimal tactical decisions in baseballÂ goes back many decadesÂ (George Lindsey was working on it back in the 1950s). But the writers are not claiming that. They are careful to point out which of their findings are new, which support existing ideas, and which questionÂ current knowledge (or “convetional sabermetric wisdom”, as they call it at one point, putting together three words that might never have appearedÂ so close to each otherÂ before).
The Book begins withÂ a technical chapter titled “Toolshed”,Â in whichÂ the methods of the authors are laid out. Readers are given permission by the authors to skip this section if they want toÂ (for those readers who really enjoyÂ its technical nature, though, there is an appendix that comes withÂ a warning of “Don’t try this at home”). It is clear early on, then, that the authors want to make their work suitable for a wide audience, without missing out the details that are so importantÂ for an analytical discipline.
The most important concept of all in the “Toolshed” is weighted on-base average, which is a statistic similar in intention to OPS but with weightings that more accurately reflect the worth of each thing a hitter might do at the plate. The statistic is used throughout the book to assess the pros and cons of various strategies. Unfortunately, the copy editor or typesetter must have been thinking about an upcomingÂ holiday during work on that section.Â It is full of serious mistakes,Â including the baffling non-sentence: “Might this statistic see”. Overall there are more errors inÂ the publication’sÂ editingÂ than a below-average shortstop might make in a couple of years. But I will not hold that against the writers, as it clear from their thoughtful approach to each problem that they are meticulous individuals, at least when it comes to baseball analysis.
After the “Toolshed”, the authors work through all of the standard tactical questions that a game of baseball throws up -Â and some of the non-standard ones – using what they believe to be the most rigorous methods available to answer the question. I won’t go into any examples here (as tempting as it is), but there are some real treats to be had by any reader who takes the time to read this book from cover to cover. If, instead,Â you want to justÂ learn whatÂ the authors conclude, without knowing how they got there, then it is still worth getting a copy, as there are plenty of boxesÂ breaking up the text within whichÂ a concise summary of each main finding is presented.
Now, if a manager ofÂ a Major League Baseball team says in an interview that he was playing it by “the book”,Â a meticulous journalist should ask if he is referring to the body of folklore or to the recent publication from Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin.
Have you read â€œThe Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseballâ€? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.